With a healthy dash of context, it could be helpful -- actionable, even -- to know how a defense is being attacked.
Are enemy offenses peppering the middle of the field against a certain defense, leading to a glut of tight end opportunity? Are wide receivers having their way against a defense, commanding a massive target share? Are running backs seeing plenty of dump off opportunities against a particular defense?
These are questions I’ll address in this space during the regular season, examining which positions are seeing the most opportunity against a certain defense in an exercise that might serve as the tiebreaker in your weekly agonizing start-sit decisions.
With every passing week, our understanding of how offenses are going after defenses should improve. Context will be key, as a bunch of targets to Travis Kelce doesn’t mean Tyler Eifert is going to see the same kind of opportunity against the same defense. If only it were that easy.
Jordan Akins (HOU) at Cleveland
Akins’ Week 9 return to Houston’s lineup was something short of spectacular. Coming off a concussion and an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for nearly a month, Akins ran 16 pass routes and caught two of four targets for 19 yards against the Jaguars. Like I said, a forgettable return.
Nevertheless! Akins this week gets the Browns, a defense that has quietly been exploited via the tight end throughout the 2020 season. Any search for streaming tight ends should start with game environment, and we have a good one here: this game has a 53-point total and the underdog Texans have a 25-point implied total.
Then there’s the matchup. Nearly 23 percent of targets against Cleveland have gone to tight ends -- that breaks down to 8.6 tight end targets per game. That opportunity has translated into production, as the Eagles are the only team that has played eight games this season and given up more tight end receptions than the Browns. Pass catchers of every stripe have benefited from bushels of targets against the Cleveland defense, which has become a pass-funnel offense over the past month. Seventy-one percent of yards gained against the Browns this season have come through the air, the sixth highest rate in the NFL. Look for Deshaun Watson to post gaudy yardage numbers this week -- an outcome that might not be terrible for a tertiary option like Akins.
Darren Fells isn’t going anywhere. But nearly every game in which Akins is active, Fells is the team’s TE2, including last week against Jacksonville. Texans beat writers have been clear this season that the team wants Akins to be the primary pass-catching tight end. A bump in usage two weeks removed from an extended absence should -- at worst -- give Akins the chance to benefit from an objectively solid Week 10 matchup.
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Jacob Hollister (SEA) at LA Rams
You might recall me highlighting another unnamed Seattle tight end in this space last week. Let’s try our best to forget about all that and instead focus on the potential opportunity for Jacob Hollister, the athletic Seahawks tight end who had a moment of fantasy relevance just last season.
Seattle coaches, per beat reports, are intent on incorporating Hollister into the team’s aerial attack after a half season of lackluster play from the decidedly washed Greg Olsen and Will Dissly. Last week against Buffalo, Hollister ran 16 pass routes and was targeted seven times in the team’s pass-heavy game script. He caught five balls for 60 yards in the loss. That’s a considerable jump in usage for a guy who had run 49 routes and seen 15 targets all season headed into Week 9.
Hollister finished a distant third in receiving yardage and receptions in 2019, getting at least six targets in seven of ten games. Russell Wilson targeted Hollister a total of 11 times in the Seahawks’ two 2019 playoff games. He was, in short, a locked-in part of the Seattle offense in a way we haven’t seen with Olsen Or Dissly through nine weeks of the 2020 season. Why he didn’t inherit the starting gig this season is anyone’s guess. Sports Illustrated’s Corbin Smith said this week that as “the Seahawks continue to try to win via shootout with a struggling defense on the other side of the ball, it's becoming apparent the Seahawks plan to lean on the young athletic tight end more often in the final two months of the season.”
This Seattle defense -- with or without Jamal Adams -- is not going to stop anyone. Their proverbial foot remaining firmly on the proverbial gas pedal could generate plenty of chances for Hollister. And opportunity is all we're seeking.
His Week 10 matchup against the Rams fits the tight end streaming process nicely. Tight ends are seeing 25.94 percent of the targets against LA this season, the fifth highest rate in the NFL. Many teams haven’t had much choice but to to target the tight end against the Rams, who largely shut down opposing wideouts (evidenced by a lowly 51.13 percent receiver target share against LA). That’s resulted in an average of 8.64 tight end targets per game against the Rams. Three weeks ago, we saw Bears tight ends get 11 targets against LA; Evan Engram and George Kittle each saw 10 targets against the Rams; and the unheralded Tyler Kroft turned five targets into four grabs and two scores against LA.
Rams linebacker Kenny Young has been burned time and again in coverage this year, allowing 20 receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown on 24 targets. LA linebacker Micah Kiser has been better in pass coverage but still allows 3.7 catches and 26.1 yards per game. The shifty, speedy Hollister should be able to exploit the mismatch with Young, and to a lesser extent, Kiser, in a game with an eye-popping 55.5-point over/under.